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Milwaukee - Less than a mile from the North Shore, Thurston Woods Campus at 35th Street and Florist Avenue can feel much more distant for many North Shore families.

To help close that gap, North Shore families have formed a regular friendship with the students and staff at the elementary school. Thurston Woods students have a recurring "reading buddies" program in which they read to North Shore toddlers, create a piece of artwork together and get to know each other in the process.

This "reading buddies" program is just one of several activities organized by Whitefish Bay moms Jean Heffernan and Lynn Raines, who met each other three years ago during a storytime session with their 1-year-old daughters. Before they had kids, Raines was a principal at Brookfield Elementary School and Heffernan was a second-grade teacher. They were both raised with a community service ethic that they wanted to instill in their daughters.

When they searched for volunteer opportunities, though, they found that many organizations require volunteers to be at least 8 years old. They met other North Shore families with a similar desire to volunteer, and two years later, they started Toddlers and Kids on a Mission. The organization's mission is is to show young children that they are able and responsible to make a difference.

Roughly 120 families have participated in their missions, with a core group of 30 to 40 families participation on a regular basis. Although they started by focusing on volunteer opportunities for toddlers, they have expanded to include children as old as 8 years old.

Starting with a play date, senior citizens at St. John's on the Lake, they have expanded their outreach efforts to other Milwaukee organizations, such as Riverwest Food Pantry, Sojourner Family Peace Center and All Peoples Church. They were specifically looking for opportunities to engage with people directly, instead of just donating money and supplies.

"Unless they see who they are helping it doesn't have quite the same effect," Raines said.

"A 1-year-old may not remember the experience of creating a toiletry bag," Heffernan said. "But continuing to get together as a group and doing it repeatedly builds that positive foundation that will motivate these kids as they get older."

The "reading buddies" program was organized after they reached out to a Milwaukee Public Schools volunteer coordinator, who matched them with Thurston Woods Campus. Raines and Heffernan worked with Cynthia Peppers, the school's curriculum support specialist, to create a program that promotes reading for elementary school students, as well as building interpersonal communication skills for the students and toddlers alike.

"We want them to become comfortable reading and enjoy reading," Thurston Woods Campus Principal Felice Beal said. "They also get a chance to be leaders to younger students and show them what kindness looks like."

At the end of the session, Toddlers and Kids on a Mission lays out a selection of books for the students to take home. The art project that the students and toddlers create together is donated to the Clinton Rose Senior Center, 3045 N Dr. Martin Luther King Dr.

Although the children are young, Heffernan said the volunteer experiences have been meaningful for her 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. After each mission, parents have conversations with their children about what they gained from the experience.

"The effects I have seen on my children is that they believe serving the community is just something you do," she said. "It's like going to church, going to the grocery store or going to school. It's just natural."

Just as the young children are being exposed to new people, causes and organizations, the organization's outings also introduce their parents - many of which are new to the area - to the organizations that are working to make Milwaukee a better place.

"We’ve worked really hard to bridge the gap that we know exists between suburban Milwaukee and urban Milwaukee," Raines said. "We are passionate about creating intercultural and inter-generational experiences that may bridge that gap."

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